Chhavi Mittal doesn’t believe in taking a weekend off like any other content creator who has a deadline to meet Monday morning. She’s busy instructing her staff and okaying papers in between our call. Over the last few days, you have seen the actor-producer recount her battle with breast cancer through a series of Instagram posts, intended to generate awareness and help affected women like her deal with their condition.
But behind her inspirational story of recovery lies a story of swerving emotions and pain. And, of course, teeth-gnashing grit. But above everything else is the story of an ordinary person who’s determined to reclaim normalcy with some extraordinary willpower. “It’s not cancer, it’s the battle in the mind.”
‘I’m a textbook case of fitness, I still got it’
My diagnosis was by accident. I had pulled a muscle in the chest while working out at the gym and was advised an MRI scan to understand the nature of muscle stress. That’s when they found a tumour in my other breast and insisted I did a biopsy just to be sure. I was in two minds because there was no pain, no other symptoms and I had never felt fitter in my life. I ruled out an outside possibility because till then, I had ticked all the boxes, breastfed my babies, got my routine tests done on time, slept and woke up on time, ate right, and never missed the gym. I had no family history of cancer.
Uncannily enough, I had hosted a webinar on breast cancer a fortnight before diagnosis and was well aware of self-check protocols or changes in the breast. I had nothing. Still, out of professional respect for the doctor, I did the biopsy.
So, when the result came, it was unbelievable but I didn’t panic. That’s the way I am built, I am calm during a crisis but will fret over the smallest aberration in my children’s lives. I took a day to process the information, and told my husband, mother, and a few close people. Since it was Stage II, Grade I, I was advised immediate surgery. On the basis of the histopathology report, the surgeon said we could avoid chemotherapy and since my cancer was slow-progressing, gave me a fortnight’s time to prepare. I finished all my commitments within that time and I read up on my condition to gear myself up and be informed. By the time I was on the operating table, I believed I could get cancer out of my body for good. I remembered how the surgeon in the OT asked me to relax, to which I responded, “I am going to be sleeping, are you relaxed enough?” And everybody laughed.
My surgery lasted seven hours as there were multiple procedures to extract what was deep-rooted and they had to remove a part of my muscle. Then I was recommended 20 sessions of radiotherapy over six weeks. Immediately after the surgery, I had severe pain in the armpit and breast. My movement was restricted because of it, I had extreme difficulty lying down or pulling myself to the bathroom. Besides, I had a fluid drainage bag attached to me and I could have gone home with that contraption but I chose to stay seven days in the hospital with it. I was attached to IV lines and the repeated clotting, flushing and finding new veins for a fresh canal became so intensely painful that I would scream out loud. My limbs were swollen and tender, causing additional pain.
Physiotherapy is important after any surgical procedure and in my case, it was important to do it regularly in the first few days so that my affected muscles and nerves could not only heal faster but relearn their old movement and flexibility. As a part of my muscle was taken out, this part had to be “told” to react to neural responses. This phase was excruciatingly painful for me as I had to do it twice or thrice a day but I was determined to get my body moving as it did before.
The long road called radiotherapy
This therapy involves directing high-energy beams such as X-rays or protons to kill remnant cancerous cells around the operated area. Everybody reacts to radiotherapy differently and I was asked to watch out for swelling in the breast or colour change. There was no burning sensation but I felt fatigued. I experienced swelling and tenderness. The radiologist asked me to wear fitted clothes and my body felt too turgid. There was a dilemma about what to wear. My regular undergarments would not fit and I had to find some biggish tops that would cover my chest area effectively enough and prevent allied damage. On days I went for shooting, the swelling would aggravate and I would put ice packs in the evening and take a Dolo.
The worst part about radiation was holding your breath to make sure that your heart and lungs didn’t get affected. The moment I released my breath, the device would sense it and turn off. So, I learned to hold my breath from 10 to 32 seconds. Radiation usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes but shorter breath-holds mean lengthening the process. I devised my own counting process, chanting “Mississippi 1, Mississippi 2…” I always took somebody along during these sessions to maintain my rhythm. And during one of these sessions, my actor-friend Pooja Gor suggested changing my chant to “Mrs Hippy 1.” We had a good laugh and the session became bearable.
During these sessions I saw some fellow survivors had marked themselves with tattoos, indicating the spot where the body would be aligned in position. I just want to tell everybody that you must ask your doctor for options. I had marker stickers to indicate my position. You don’t need a tattoo.
How I found my familiar moorings
I returned to the office within seven days of being discharged. Returning to familiarity helped me get back to normal even before I knew it. Immersing myself in work, I learned to refocus myself. But all this time I would listen to my body and take a rest in between. I never pushed myself. In fact, the sooner we get back to life as we knew it, the better it is for healing and your willpower.
I owe a lot of my recovery process to my mother, who came from Delhi to manage the home front and my husband, Mohit, who didn’t leave my side for a minute during the seven days I was in the hospital. He even set up my laptop so that I could divert myself from all the pain. Though my son is very young, my nine-year-old daughter handled it maturely. I told her that they would cut me smaller than when they cut me to get her out of my tummy. And that I would be back home in no time. That’s why I stayed back in hospital for seven days because I didn’t want my children to see me in pain or hear me shrieking. Of course, there were my friends who always visited me at the hospital with home-cooked food.
My activities now
I am not 100 per cent fit yet. But I have gone back to exercising. I am allowed to lift 5 kg now and I was a heavy lifter. I go for regular walks in the morning and evening. I cannot do callisthenics, push-ups and pull-ups for a while. It took me three years to master pull-ups after my son was born. Getting there will take time, definitely more than six months. But I am good.
How I prepared my mind
I told myself I would survive cancer, I just had to beat the side effects. I express my gratitude to the universe and count my blessings that I got a reason at the right time to get myself examined, that I could keep my breasts and was spared chemotherapy. Most cancers are curable but the journey to healing depends entirely on you, not the doctor or the disease. I always give positive vibes to my body, saying three months later, I wouldn’t even remember the pain I underwent. I remember the doctors asking me how much pain could I take. I told them I could even dance with pain if I put my mind to it.
My jokes about cancer are obnoxious and people think I am suppressing my trauma but the fact is they are my coping mechanism.
I have encouraged my fellow survivors but have never been in a support group. I manifest my own positivity to become better. Just because somebody had to have a mastectomy or had a long, complicated haul because of a different stage or grade of cancer doesn’t mean I will repeat their condition. Your cancer journey is your own, so do not get influenced by what happened to others. Instead focus on getting better with complete faith, follow your doctor’s advice and keep yourself informed about your condition. Always remember that faith is like drinking water, it can only go to your stomach. And finally, to all women out there, get yourself tested and scanned regularly and not wait for a hidden tumour to surprise you. Remember, I didn’t have obvious symptoms.